Like most graduation speakers, Daihana Estrada hopes to inspire the students at John Hancock College Preparatory High School when she delivers the keynote address Sunday at Soldier Field.
Given her personal story, I don’t see how she can go wrong.
Estrada, 29, graduated last month from law school, making her the first former recipient of a Chicago Coalition for the Homeless scholarship to do so.
The scholarship is available to graduating Chicago-area high school students who have succeeded in their studies despite experiencing homelessness.
At 17, Estrada faced a common form of homelessness known as being “doubled up” after her parents were ordered deported from Utah to Mexico because of their undocumented entry to the United States 20 years earlier.
Estrada — who was born in California and therefore a U.S. citizen — was given a choice by her parents: She could come with them to Mexico, or she could join an older brother in Chicago.
Estrada chose Chicago and what she hoped would be the better future this country could offer. But her brother, only three years older and dealing with his own problems, left her mostly to fend for herself as she completed her senior year at Hancock.
It was an unstable situation for a young girl accustomed to being in her parents’ care. She dined on popcorn when there was no food in the apartment and slept on friends’ couches when her relationship with her brother became contentious. She got a job at Best Buy to support herself.
Despite those obstacles, Estrada was accepted at the University of Illinois at Chicago, given a full ride and awarded the homeless coalition’s scholarship, which helped her move into campus housing. Even then, during school breaks, she never knew where she would stay, not having a place to call home.
From the start, though, Estrada had a vision to use her education to help immigrants like her parents.
She found an important ally in Vanessa Puentes, her English teacher at Hancock, who took it upon herself to teach her the life skills needed to survive on her own — from how to take the bus to how to apply for a medical card.
When Estrada graduated from college and still had nowhere to go, Puentes let her stay at her own mother’s unused home.
“She’s definitely like a part of my family now,” says Puentes, who became principal at Hancock.
Having written about doubled-up situations, I know not everyone sees this as homelessness.
But, as Puentes explains, students stuck in doubled-up situations are always living with the thought: “Is this person going to kick me out?”
“That is very stressful for students,” she says.
When Estrada faces the 1,200 students and family members expected to attend Sunday’s ceremony, she plans to tell them about the challenges she faced — and, more than that, what she did to succeed.
“I want to let them know every person will encounter a hardship at some point in their life, and they have the power to empower themselves because of it or let that take them down in some way,” Estrada says, speaking with me at a Bridgeport coffee shop not far from the Pilsen apartment where she now lives. “But I truly believe you can overcome most hardships in life, and you can find something positive about it.”
Estrada’s days are filled with studying to pass the bar examination next month — the last barrier to fulfilling her dream.
“This has been 12 years that I wanted this,” says Estrada, who graduated in May from Loyola University Chicago School of Law.
Estrada has stayed active with the homeless coalition, speaking to groups and working with the scholarship program, which, over 17 years, has given a total of more than $500,000 to 75 students.
Having attended one of the awards ceremonies, I concur with Estrada’s assessment that the winners’ stories are “very inspiring.”
“It humbles me,” she says.
Those Hancock graduates should listen closely to what she has to say.